Recently I was working with a client on helping them achieve some performance improvements. As we reviewed how one department was doing, my client picked up the phone and called the department manager, and angrily told him to get his ass in here quickly as he had some explaining to do.

When he put the phone down,  I looked at him and said: "be careful that you don't shoot the hamster."

I could tell from his look that he had no clue what I was talking about. 

I said, "Look. That department is not performing as well as you had hoped, but do you know why that is?  Have you given them everything they need to be successful? Have you clearly articulated the goals and objectives? Because if you haven't then they are just like a hamster on a wheel, no matter how fast, how hard, or how long they work they are not going to be successful."

Too many managers shoot first and ask questions later, or they will sack people and look to replace them with new staff.
But if the underlying issues are not resolved, then this is the same as blaming the hamster on the wheel for not making progress. And buying a bigger, faster stronger hamster isn't going to fix it.

As a leader, the first thing you need to do is to check that you have done your job properly. That you have set your teams up for success, that you have ensured that they have the required skills and resources. Otherwise, they will have no chance of success, and then their failure is actually yours.

As we started to examine what were the underlying issues that the department was having, sure enough, they were not of their own making.  They were not involved in the estimation process and were constantly being given projects that were impossible to achieve.

By making changes to the estimation processing, and involving the manager in the sign-off process, allowed the department to see positive results for their hard work.

The easy option would have been to assume that the team was not working hard enough, that they were not committed enough and to demand they put in more effort. But without checking to see whether the team had been set up for success, or understanding what the real issues were it could and then making the right changes, any increased effort would have been wasted. The team would have just ended up exhausted, frustrated and demotivated.

Sometimes it's the wheel that needs fixing and not the hamster, but too many managers shoot the hamster first before asking the right questions.

Published on: Feb 17, 2018